Thieves at Heart Chapter 6
Trial by Blood
Tavera woke up and grimaced. Her stomach hurt and the feeling of pain creeping through her belly had woken her. It was still early in the morning. The birds that typically sange just as the sun was coming up were sending out their calls. The only other noise was the sound of Derk snoring behind her. His arm was draped around her middle, pinning her down. He seemed as if he was deep in sleep but she knew if she spoke he would wake up. They weren’t usually early risers but her stomach did hurt, as if someone was squeezing her guts, twisting them gently and she felt a bit nauseous. The heavy arm pinning her to the ground didn’t help and so she wiggled a bit under the blankets, hoping to wake him up before she spoke.
“I don’t feel good,” she said quietly. The change in his breathing told her he was awake though he didn’t move yet. She laid there and waited, feeling the pressure on her side lessen as he gained control of his limbs.
“How d’you mean?” he mumbled. A bird tweeted, closer than before. Tavera looked towards the campfire, or what was left of it and tried to think of how to describe it.
“I dunno,” she said, wiggling in her bedroll. “I’ve a stomach ache.”
“What did you eat last night?” he asked. He didn’t sound annoyed or angry, just tired. The half-elf girl tried to think of what she had eaten last night and realized it would be easier to think of what she hadn’t eaten. She’d been ravenous the last phase, eating everything in sight. Derk had chided her on eating too quickly last night, saying it would give her stomach problems. Maybe that was it.
“Same as you,” she said, squirming again as another squeeze pushed in her stomach. “Same as always.” Derk sat up and she stayed lying on the bedroll, not wanting to get up in the cold air. But he tickled her on the side and she grimaced and laughed at the same time, slapping his hand away as she did her best to keep the blankets around her. Derk reached over and pulled her eyelids up and then down, feeling where her neck met her head and pressing there with his thumb and middle finger. He placed a hand on her forehead and frowned, his blue eyes still weary with sleep and he shook his head.
“You seem well enough. Go make toilet and see if that doesn’t help.” Derk kissed her on the forehead before he slumped back towards the ground, eyes fluttering closed as his head disappeared within the blankets. Tavera pouted and got up as slowly as she could. It was cold and she shivered as she unwrapped herself from blankets. Twigs and pebbles pressed into her socked feet as she picked her way around the remainders of the fire, walking far enough away from their small camp for privacy. Little ferns and bushes snapped at her legs as she meandered, looking back over her shoulder to make sure she could see the camp site but that Derk wasn’t looking, spinning around to make sure no one else was, either.
Derk had probably passed back out. He only bothered her if he thought she was taking too long and right now, it felt like everything she had eaten last night was about to fall out of her. They had lunch in town, and she had gorged herself on roasted barley soup, as many rolls as Derk would buy her, a piece of roasted ground fowl and all the fish they had brought. A few pilfered fruit satisfied her desire for sweets and Derk humored her with a bag of charred nuts on the way out of town. She finished off the bag before he could think to ask for some. Tavera burped. She wasn’t hungry at all now. Food sounded horrible. Fumbling hands pulled down her trousers and she squatted down after she kicked around to make sure no snakes or spiders were hiding anywhere.
The birds still chirped and twittered above and about, a little red breasted bird hopping around just a few paces away. The girl made a face at it when it cocked its head at her and she hissed at it when it flew a few widths closer. She finally put her head down to try and block out the little bird, feeling her stomach pains ache lower. When she looked up the little bird was gone. Her stomach was still cramped but at least some of the pressure was gone. She pulled out the rag she had tucked in her pocket to wipe herself, wrinkling her nose as she did and her mouth falling open when she looked at the scrap of cloth.
Was it really blood? The girl cursed under her breath. It was pinkish. If the fabric had been darker, she wouldn’t have noticed but there was a pink and red smear on the fabric. She finished wiping and left it there, pulling her pants back up and wiping her palms on her thighs as she walked back towards the campsite. Derk was sitting up on his bedroll now, looking in her direction. His eyes were narrowed, watching her carefully as she walked back, tripping over her own feet but catching herself. He looked her over. “Everything alright?”
Hesitant sounds came out of her mouth and she made a few faces as she looked into the embers of the fire, scratching her head. “I…yeah. I just think…maybe…it started?” She chewed on the side of her mouth, not sure what else to say. Tavera knew what was happening, she was fairly certain. Prisca had told her about it and Old Gam had mentioned it. Derk just looked at her blankly, strangely alert.
“What started, Tavi? Are you sick?” He coughed into his fist, squinting at her. Tavera put her hands under her stomach and felt tired.
“It’s…it’s my Red Earth time,” she said, quietly. In the early morning stillness it still seemed loud and Derk’s eyes went wide as they stared at each other for several breaths. Eventually Derk seemed to snap on it and a paranoid smile came across his face as he scrambled up from his bedroll.
“I’ve got to boil some water,” he said, picking his belt up and buckling it around his waist, grabbing his vest off the pile of things that belonged to him. “This couldn’t have come at a better time, with Gam being in town. This is your first, right? Tavi? Tavi? Are you okay?” He grabbed the pot and then set it down again, going into his pack and pulling out a pair of pants. “Tavi, come sit down, dear.”
Tavi walked over to where the beds were and sat down watching as he pulled off his pants. He put on the pair he had removed from the pack.“Derk, what are you doing?” she finally asked, slightly exasperated by his sudden increase in activity.
“I’m changing into my good pants so we can tear up my old ones for you,” he said, buckling his belt again and having some trouble as he had the kettle in one of his hands. “But I’ve to get water to boil the rags in. Then we have to go into town to the temple so you can have first rites.”
“First rites?!” Tavera squeaked. Her stomach was still tying and unraveling, and she squirmed in her seat, wishing she had something to make the pain go away “Like what? Is it like a holiday?”
“I guess I haven’t kept you ‘round girls your age, have I? Otherwise you’d know. Hasn’t Old Gam told you about this?” Derk put a hand up to stop the both of them from talking, his blond hair still mussed atop his head and his shirt half tucked into his trousers. “Let me get this water. If you’re up to it, rip these old things into strips. I needed a new pair anyway.” He fumbled around in his bedroll, pulling out his dagger and handing it to her. “You’ll be alright?”
“It’s blood, not brain,” Tavera snorted, taking the dagger from him. “What, like for wounds?”
“I don’t know!” Derk said and he blushed, avoiding her eyes. “Just think about…what you think you need! But I should boil them first, some of them at least. I’m going!” he shouted, walking away. “Scream if you need me!”
“Fine!” she shouted after him, watching him go. There was a little spring not too far away from where they had set up camp. Tavera ripped off a rectangle of fabric and looked at it, wondering how big it should be. Her gaze wandered towards the fire pit, seeing the pile of sticks that lay close at hand to feed it. She set the pants and dagger aside; Derk couldn’t boil water if there wasn’t a fire. She stirred the ashes with one of the sticks, seeing if any embers lay underneath. A handful of dried grass fed the remains of the night’s fire, going from yellow to brown, then black and glowing orange as they caught on fire. Twigs came next. A low, long yawn was stifled as she heard Derk shout and saw him rush forward, throwing the kettle of water onto the fire she was building.
“What the tits are you doing?!” Tavera started, some of the water splashing up onto her. She glared at Derk, still holding the twigs in her hand. He just looked at her sheepishly, putting the kettle under his arm. “I know how to make a fire, you know it! Why’d you do that!?”
“You can’t build a fire-”
“Yes I can, I do it-”
“NOT…now,” he said, finally lowering his voice. He rubbed his eye with the palm of his hand and sighed heavily, looking into the empty kettle. “Now…it’s not good. You can’t build a fire. When you’re on your Red Earth time. It’s….”
“That don’t make no sense,” Tavera said and her good ear twitched as she said it. It didn’t. Why couldn’t she build a fire? She still knew how to build a fire and she had done it countless times. Whatever had been left of the fire was gone now, a pile of soggy ash and grass. “No ladies build fire in their red time? How do they cook then?!”
“It’s just…it’s one of those things, Tavera,” Derk said and when he said it, he sounded unsure about it. “I’m sorry I splashed you. But it’s supposed to be…bad. A taboo.”
“What like…like plowing children?” She asked it hushed and after she said it, they both looked around worriedly. Derk mumbled something under his breath and set the kettle down, mechanically tugging at the prayer bracelet he wore around his wrist. He shook his head at her, his lips a thin line that cut across his face.
“Not that bad, no,” he said, still looking around. “It’s an old…like I said. It’s bad luck.” He picked up the kettle and looked her over again, cocking his head to the side like that bird had done. “You look pale.”
“I’m more dark than you.”
“Eat something, if you can manage. I’ll fetch more water. And do those rags if you can, you’ll need them.”
“What food is there?”
“Whatever you didn’t cram yesterday. I might have something sweet in my pack.” Tavera watched him leave and she huffed, blowing her hair out of her face. She wasn’t really hungry. Her stomach still hurt, her body trying to squeeze the unused earth out of her, to make space for new earth, new life. That’s what she had been taught happened at this time. Prisca mentioned Tavera would start seeing men after her first time came. In all honesty, she hadn’t really understood all of what Prisca had said regarding her Red Earth. She would have to start doing what Prisca did and she would get money for it. That had been a long time ago and hadn’t come to be. Derk took her in and cared for her whereas Prisca…the sound of Derk’s footsteps on the leaves and twigs brought her back to her cramps and her task, ripping a few more rags off of the old pants. The man set the kettle down carefully so as not to spill any of the water and went about rearranging the stones next to the old fire pit, trying to rescue what he could.
“What else can’t I do?” she asked, ripping off another strip, using the knife to turn it into two, hand sized rags. Derk shrugged and shuffled over to his pack, picking out the two fire stones wrapped in their special bag. He wrinkled his nose at her as he rolled them out, wiping his forehead with the back of his hand before he crouched into the wind.
“Depends on who you ask,” he said, striking a stone against the other. “Some would say you can’t drink milk. No kissing babies. I’d say no kissing boys.”
“That can’t be one of them,” she said, ripping of another ring of fabric. The dagger tugged at the seam and she pulled it with a jerk, loosening the piece from the rest. “I know it ain’t true.”
“You could, I just would prefer you wouldn’t,” he said, striking the stones again, his back towards her so that his words were muffled. “Or rather, I should say, I wish you would stop kissing boys.”
“Oh, pa, you know I only kissed that last one because his mam worked at the Wren! There was a whole bag of seedbarley to get!”
“And just last week it was that red headed one for a bolt of fabric and then before that the dark haired lad with the big ears. I don’t even remember what that was about.”
“I liked his ears, I thought they were cute.”
“Tavi!” Derk said, looking back at her finally. Tavera tried her best to stifle her laugh, making her face long and her eyes big. Her attempt just wiped Derk’s stern expression from his face and he sighed, turning back to the fire that he had barely started. “Tavi, just…be careful. If that red headed one and the blond one find out about one another, they could get in a row and then the parents come looking for me.”
“Fine, I’ll just kiss boys that got no parents.”
“That’s not what I’m…or what about this?” he offered. The sparks had been transformed into a happy little flame and he grabbed a piece of bigger kindling, snapping it in two before he placed it carefully over the fire. “What about women? You’re just hitting men up! That’s half the people in the Valley you can’t use your tricks on!”
“Some ladies like other ladies, you know that,” Tavera chided, forgetting about the rags for the moment. “Don’t you remember when we went to-”
“But you shouldn’t lie about who you like or want to kiss,” Derk finally said. He put another piece of kindling on and got the frame to hang the kettle over, digging its points into the earth. “It’s not good to do, to garner ills from thwarted lovers. People don’t like to be kissed and left. And besides, I’ve warned you against being a dog of one use. I don’t want you to get lazy.”
Tavera kept her thoughts to herself, feeling another cramp twist inside of her making her queasy. She put the torn up pants on her lap and blinked, watching as Derk set the kettle of water over the fire finally. “So…” she said slowly, looking over the dagger in her hand. “We’re going to wait for the water to boil, and then boil the fabric and then wait for the rags to dry?”
Derk looked at the water quizzically and then to Tavera. After a breath he shook his head and put his hands up. “You got me,” he admitted, feeling around for his pipe. “I ain’t done this before, Tavi. I don’t know what’s going on.”
“We’re supposed to meet Gam and you wanted to get there by mid-meal,” Tavera said.
“I know, I know,” he muttered, fumbling around inside his pack. Tavera yawned and laid back on both of the bedrolls. Her father nudged her out of the way, finding the pipe but lacking the tobacco. “Just….”
“Hang them over the fire when they’re done,” Tavera said, curling up into a ball. Her stomach didn’t feel well. Derk looked to her and his eyes softened, sighing as he put a hand on her cheek. A rough hand brushed her hair out of her face.
“I’ll take care of it, Tavi dear.” He leaned over and kissed her on the cheek, which made her smack at him. He growled at her and laughed. “You just rest and I’ll do these up as quick as I can. They’re small, they should dry fast. I’m sure we can find something else for you in town to help. Gam’ll have something for sure.” Derk looked into the kettle and started to pack his pipe, smirking at his daughter. “One good thing about this, most girls start growing in the shirt after they start their red times. Sure you’re not crying about that.”
Tavera nodded and rolled over onto her side, feeling tired but the sensations in her body and the slight excitement kept her eyes from closing. If it was any other day they would probably still be asleep, waking up when the sun had warmed everything it touched and eating on the road. She was supposed to be practicing her fighting but the girl didn’t think she’d be up to it today. Tavera rolled over again so she could see Derk, smoking peacefully on his pipe, sitting by the fire and watching her. “Can I get some tea in town?” she asked. “We used to sell a lot of purple cup to ladies on their Red Earth time. It’s supposed to help.”
“Whatever you want,” Derk said. He peeked into the fire again and they sat there, waiting for the water to boil. Tavera rolled over again and stared off into space, watching the little birds hop and flit about. Every time she thought she could nod off, a cramp would roll through her stomach and wake her up. She finally gave up altogether and sat up and started mending clothes with Derk, being sure to jokingly ask him if it was okay to do so. He made a face at her and they quietly mended clothes as they waited for the water to boil.
The wine was sweet and spiced. Tavera didn’t really like it but she was supposed to drink the whole bowl of it. Old Gam smiled at her and brushed her hair out of her face, hazel eyes sparkling at the girl who was now a woman. “How is it?” Old Gam asked, her curly hair framing her round face. They were standing at the altar after vespers. All the other worshipers had departed for drinks or home and the two of them had lagged behind to receive first rites. The priestess poured the bowl of wine and gave it to Tavera, saying a prayer over the girl and anointing her with water from the sacred chalice.
Tavera always wanted the temple’s chalice for herself but she knew such a wish was bordering on blasphemy. She had mentioned it once to Derk and all joviality had drained from his face, and she had spent all of their meal apologizing. She still wanted them, one of them. This one was made out of some white stone, probably alabaster, and it had been carved to be perfectly round and smooth, the phases of the moon and inscriptions raised on the luxurious surface. Different temples had different styles of bowls and chalices, all of them beautiful.
Most households had plainer ones set in the house somewhere. Gam’s was set over her door, for protection. The priestess waited as Tavi drank from the bowl, her grey eyes smiling as she gazed down at the newest woman of the Valley. The wine was thick on Tavera’s tongue, warm on the back of her throat and hot in her belly, snaking around where there was a slight ache. What she really wanted to do was sleep but Old Gam had insisted on prying Tavera away from Derk, shooing him away to see Jezlen and taking her out for food and gifts.
Tavera finally drained the bowl and she could swear some of it had made its way to her head. Her brain felt as if it were swimming in her skull and she swayed slightly on her feet, holding the bowl out for Old Gam to take. The priestess smiled with her mouth though her words were serene as ever, like cool water in summer. “Now you have imbibed the Wine of the Beloved Woman. May the desire that grows in you now lead you to happiness. May you grow in strength, wisdom and beauty so you may be a help to yourself and those that may call upon you. May the Goddess shine upon you always, Her glory illuminating your successes and comforting you in your troubles. May you wield your womanhood with the pride and power that it deserves.” The priestess anointed her again, splashing the holy water onto the girl before she nodded to Gam and soundlessly took her leave of them, Old Gam saying her thanks before they both turned and left, their footsteps echoing in the empty temple.
Tavera looked down at the bracelet Gam had given her to wear; it was a cord of three strands, red, white and black with a goddess bead threaded and knotted at the middle. Gam hugged her around the shoulders as they walked, and Tavera didn’t think it would be right to push her away so she didn’t. “Well, women’s work has been done,” Gam laughed, continuing down the emptying street. Tavera kept up with her easily enough though she was still a bit shorter than the curly haired woman who was Derk’s closest female friend. She helped Tavera get situated with the rags so the girl didn’t feel like she had a load of laundry in her britches.
Gam wasn’t so much a mother figure as an aunt figure, though in this case her pa slept with her aunt whenever they could. Tavera liked Gam well enough and looked forward to the times they crossed paths but she was always glad to have her pa back to herself when they parted ways. Tavera was still young but she felt Gam was jealous of Tavera for some reason and she could never figure out why. Tonight, however, Old Gam was all smiles and happiness. “You’ve any questions for me, Kiff? Anything you want to know? Derk don’t know about this kind of thing after all.”
The girl chewed the side of her mouth and shrugged. She could hear music playing inside of the taverns and some children were playing a game of kick-the-ball farther down the street. If it had been any other night she probably would have joined them but not now. Her stomach didn’t hurt as much but the pain had tired her out and she wanted to lie in bed. “I guess…am I going to be tired all the time this happens? I don’t really like it.”
“Oh, no one does,” Old Gam laughed, showing where a tooth was missing. She had a pretty laugh, though it was a little brash. Gam turned a corner and Tavera followed, waiting to hear the answer. “Everyone’s different is the truth of it. You might be tired now, you might be tired before it comes or a phase after. Every woman is different.”
“I know, and every woman is as aspect of the goddess,” Tavi said, trying not to sound too exasperated. She normally enjoyed going to temple and hearing the teachings of the priestess and hearing about the attributes of the Blessed Mother. That had been before she was supposed to be like the goddess. Was every woman like the goddess? Some of the women she had known in her childhood came to mind and she tried to push those thoughts away and what they might have meant. Tavera hopped off of the curb, puzzling over something the priestess had talked about. “What was all the ‘desire’ talk? I don’t understand that part. What does having blood pour out of my twixt have to do with wanting?”
Old Gam laughed again and Tavera thought this time, maybe, the older woman thought her a bit silly. Maybe it had been a silly question but she wanted to know. Old Gam turned another corner, looking around it before she motioned for Tavera to follow, this street quieter than the last.
“It has to do with wanting to bed,” Old Gam explained. The sound of something squeaking ran across their path but neither one of them seemed to care and continued walking. Spring clouds loomed up ahead, darkening the sky and hinting at rain to come. “Once your Red Earth comes, you start wanting to bed men.”
“But I already like men, or boys at least,” Tavera said. She hopped over a crate, standing there for a breath before she strode after Gam, seeing the smirk on the woman’s mouth. “I do, Derk’s always getting on me about it, saying I shouldn’t be hanging ‘round boys like I do.”
“He does, does he?” Old Gam’s voice was dry and she put her hands behind her back, casting Tavera a sideways glance. “I am both shocked and not shocked, Kiffer. He’s your man, of course he says that. Tell me, girl, what kind of boys do you like?”
“Oh, usually ones that have nice things, or if their mams are bakers.” Now Old Gam laughed loud, so loud that someone threw something at them and they had to run down the street to escape, the both of them laughing and yelling back by the time they got to the door. Tavera had tears in her eyes and Gam was holding her stomach as their laughs settled down to chuckles and then sighs.
“That ain’t what I mean, love,” Gam said, a grin plastered on her round, amused face. “Not for things, though there is that. I mean desire, wanting like…wanting to tell someone about you, wanting them to know you, all of it. Wanting them to love it, to grab it and press it against them hard, till it melts like snow in the sun. Or even just….” Old Gam’s eyes were somewhere else but she fastened them back on Tavera, the far away look quickly disappearing. “You’re bleeding but you’re still young.” She opened the door to her apartment and went through it.
“I never said I was old,” Tavera mumbled after her, following her up the stairs. Old Gam had kind of explained it, in a way. Desire. The way Derk and Gam looked at one another when they thought she wasn’t looking. There wasn’t anyone she wanted to look at like that but supposedly, it was on its way. They made their way up to the landing and Gam opened the door with her key, making an amused sound once the door swung open. Tavera looked over her shoulder, surprised to see Derk sitting at the table, drinking by himself as he played with a handful of dice by the candle light. Old Gam walked past him towards the bedroom, chuckling.
“I thought you was with Jezlen,” Tavera said, sitting down at the table with him. Derk made a face and threw a die at the table, spinning it so that it skipped across the rough surface.
“They got into a fight, like always,” Old Gam said. Tavera could see her pulling off her outdoor clothes and slipping down to her shift. She stood in the doorway, arms over her chest as she looked at them both, eyes narrowed but glinting with merriment.
“We don’t always fight, Gam,” he said, not looking back at her. He spun all the dice on the table, picking them up and throwing them again, pursing his lips as he did. “I just thought we’d be out later but after a bit he just up and said he had to go somewhere. I already ordered another pitcher even, but still, I couldn’t keep him from leaving.”
“Where’d he go?” Tavera asked. She’d seen Jezlen several times but never seen his face, which added to his oddity. Gam just sighed and went deeper into the bedroom, fumbling around with her jars of things.
“Who cares, good riddance.”
“Oh, Gam, really now!” Derk said, spinning the dice without looking at them. “I still don’t know why, after all these years, you STILL don’t like him!”
“He doesn’t like me!” she retaliated, laughing as she appeared in the doorway again. “I try to be good about it, you’ve seen.”
“You both are horrible at getting on with one another and it’s a shame. To think I can’t have my two best friends in the same room together without them fighting.”
“Aren’t you and Gam the ones fighting now?” Tavera said, confused. Derk made a motion to pick up all the dice again but his hand hovered in mid air and he looked to her. A smile cracked his face and he did pick up the dice, tucking them into his belt pouch as he leaned back in his chair.
“Oh, before I forget, Jezlen sent this…for you.” He pulled out something from his pack, something long and wrapped in fabric. The fabric itself was nice, a dark green with brown threads sewn into it so that it changed color if you moved it a certain way. Tavera took it and unwrapped the present slowly, her eyes growing big as she realized it was a shortsword. Even Derk whistled upon seeing it, sitting up in his chair to get a closer look.
Tavera looked it over. It wasn’t the nicest sword she had seen but it was definitely the nicest one she had ever touched. It was obviously not from the Valley; the slight bend in the scabbard told her that much and the designs on the hilt were not like those of the guards who kept watch on the roads and at the gates. She wrapped her hand around the hilt and pulled gently, sliding it out against her lap. It shone as if it were new and it felt good in her hand, the metal and inlay warming to her touch.
“Tits, Jezlen just got me a new pipe for my last name day and I’ve saved his life countless times!” Derk said, laughing. Old Gam reappeared from the back room and scoffed, walking into the kitchen to see what Tavera had gotten.
“It’s nice but it’s hardly fitting for the occasion,” Old Gam said. Tavera let the shortsword fall back into the scabbard, the metal sliding swiftly in with a satisfying sound. Derk rubbed his face with his hand and stood up from the table, gathering his things and making his way to Gam’s room.
“He said it was perfect for this occasion,” he called, throwing his things about the bedroom. “He said she can use it for beating back the men that will want her, now that she’s of age.”
Gam just made a sound and walked after Derk into the room, the blond thief promptly popping out of the room to check on Tavera again. “You’ll be alright out here in the kitchen, right?” He looked hopeful and in good spirits, despite his disappointment at his friend having abandoned him for an unsaid purpose.
“Yeah, just go away already, I’ve been tired since I woke this morning!” she urged, gesturing for him to leave. He didn’t go into the room. Derk stepped into the kitchen and walked up to Tavera, looking her over again. He kissed her on the forehead and this time, Tavera rolled her eyes, laughing before she kissed him back on the neck, hugging him where she sat. He said his good nights and ducked into the room, pulling the curtain that separated the rooms across the doorway. Tavera sighed. The bedroll still had to be put out but at least it would be warmer in Gam’s house than out in the woods. The shortsword clinked as she picked it up, the weight of it feeling good in her hands. Still holding the blade in one hand, she got her bed ready, not bothering to be quiet. She knew Old Gam and Derk would be listening in the next room, waiting for her to fall asleep. Tavi yawned loudly as she settled into bed, laying the weapon by her head. Before she could even think to strain her ears to hear what Derk and Gam were whispering in the other room, she had fallen asleep.
The next day was the same as any other day waking up at Old Gam’s except that Derk had a black eye. Tavera lay in bed until Old Gam came out and chided her for being lazy, the girl scrunching up her face at the woman as her hostess started breakfast. Then Derk came out of the backroom, the hollow of his left eye discolored. It looked like it hurt. Tavera narrowed his eyes at him but he shook his head ever so slightly and then smiled. “Good morning, everyone!” he said, smacking Gam on the backside playfully. Gam swatted him away and he stumbled over to a seat at the table, resting his chin in his hand. He looked tired. Tavera got out of bed and pushed her blankets and roll into a pile, setting her pack and new sword on top before she sat down beside him.
Breakfast was toast and hot milk sweetened with honey and berries to dunk it in. Tavera found her appetite returned and she ate her bread and half of Derk’s portion. When her eyes searched around for more food, Old Gam offered her some sausage saying it would be good for her Red Earth time and Tavera felt all the food in her stomach threaten to boil out of her. Derk refused the sausage for her and asked for some tea.
This time Old Gam had a cloth bundle of pastries for Derk on their departure but she had a belt for Tavera, a woman’s belt. It was grey with green leaves embroidered into it and meant to tie under her bust, or where a bust should be. There was something there but Tavera didn’t think a belt would help. It was however very pretty, as all things that Old Gam crafted were. “Don’t wear it now,” Old Gam said, playing with Tavera’s hair. “Be sure to take it easy today and eat some meat if you can.” Old Gam kissed Derk before they left and he winced, her fingers brushing his bruised face.
“Did you go out after I fell asleep?” Tavera asked as they walked down the road. Her sword was in her pack, the hilt sticking out of the top but wrapped with a skirt to hide its true form. Derk took a bite out of a piece of charred meat before he handed the stick over to Tavera, licking his fingers clean of the grease.
“No,” he said simply after he was done chewing.
“Well, did you fall into something? It’s dark back there,” she offered, mouth full of food. Tavera pressed her lips together as Derk gave her a look. She swallowed as quickly as she could without choking. “Did a spirit punch you in the face while you slept? Did you steal something bad? I heard a story once where a man stole from an old shrine and in the night, a spirit pulled down his pants and-”
The look Derk gave her made her stop talking. Tavera gulped as they walked down the street, turning her attention to the goings on of the town this early morning. Her stomach didn’t hurt as much as it had yesterday so the smells weren’t as offensive to her nose. She took another bite of the food and chewed it thoughtfully, trying not to anger Derk again with messy habits. Tavera heard Derk sigh beside her.
“It was just Gam, Kiff,” he said, loud enough for her to hear. “We got into a fight after you passed out. It happens.” They both walked quietly down the noisy streets. Tavera finished her food and threw the stick to the ground, trying to think of what to say next.
“Well, did you hit her back?” she asked. It seemed like a good question.
“What? No! Why would I hit Old Gam back?”
“She hit you, didn’t she?”
“Kiff, I would never hit Old Gam,” he insisted.
“That’s probably why she hit you, then.” Tavera jumped up on a curb and stepped with one foot in front of the other, feeling the weight of her pack starting to make the straps dig into her shoulders. She hoped they would be taking a cart somewhere. They were supposed to be heading north according to what Derk told Old Gam but that could be a town or the next barony. Tavera looked to Derk again and he was wincing, although Tavi felt it was not from the pain but from a thought in his head. He reached over and yanked her off the curb, hugging her close to him and pulling her hair over her ear. “What did you fight over?” she asked.
“What we always fight over. Friends, money. Connections.” Tavera felt like he was going to say ‘you’ but he held the word back and just squeezed her shoulder. Tavera frowned. Who did Old Gam think she was, hitting her pa like that? She regretted not bringing it up at breakfast despite Derk’s silent insistence that she keep quiet. With Tavera watching maybe she could have found something out, get to the heart of the matter between Old Gam and Derk. Years of history was the basis of the relationship of the two adults but maybe a fresh set of eyes could see something they were blind to. Then again Old Gam did just see her as a child, despite the physical change. They came to the gate, the departing carts lined up according to their destinations. Derk led her not towards the northern bound carts but the ones headed east, across the Freewild. Tavi looked up to him and grinned, Derk returning her grin with a wink.
“Just you and the girl?” the woman asked. Her brown hair was very short and her arms were thick with muscles. She even had a tattoo on her forearm that made Tavera’s eyes big, a naked woman dancing under the moon. The man behind her was loading bags onto the cart, lashing them down with ropes. Among the provisions were a few weapons, probably meant more for dealing with issues in the Freewild than for trade. Tavera felt her heart thump with excitement, wanting to leap up onto the cart.
“Aye, to the first eastern village,” Derk said, setting his pack on the ground. He pulled out the bundle of pastries Old Gam had made them and a few handfuls of coins. He looked at the provisions on the cart and smiled. “This is headed to Reedwood, ain’t it?”
“Right you are,” the woman said and she smiled broadly at them. “Lucky for them Portsmouth temple owes them for the manuscripts that burned a few phases ago. Reedwoods crops have been faring poorly these past seasons.”
“I’ve done temple work before, before the library of Reedwood got the annex. We got the Everglight Chalice back from those sunny hem-chewers years ago,” Derk said which made Tavera raise her brows. Derk had worked for the church before? This was news to her. Apparently it was good news to the cart driver since she grinned widely.
“Oh, another fellow used to knocking heads in the Green, eh? Well, you’re welcome on board, a fellow hand to the temple, past or present.” She set her brown eyes on Tavera and looked to her. “And you, can you hold your own if we get into trouble in the Green? You look too young to have helped anyone but yourself.”
“I gave him that black eye!” Tavera exclaimed, which made the large woman laugh so raucously Tavera thought she would never stop. Tears streamed down her face and the woman smacked her on the shoulder, which hurt. She hit hard and Tavera was glad the woman seemed so jovial.
“I like you, little one,” the woman proclaimed, crossing her arms over her muscled breasts. She smiled when she said it and Tavera smiled back, deciding she liked her too. The woman gave them a discount on their fare but said they had to acquire their own food and keep watch. Any disobedience meant being left in the Freewild. Derk gave her coin but not the pastries, much to Tavera’s delight before they climbed into the cart, settling in among the beans, barley and dried fish.
“You never told me you worked for the church,” Tavera said, eating a pastry. Derk just shrugged and pulled out his cards, shuffling them against his knee. Tavera crammed the rest of the food into her mouth and ignored Derk’s disapproval, waiting for him to deal her a hand. Excitement, not pain rumbled her stomach now. The Freewild and then the Eastern Valley. She had never been there before. Derk told Old Gam they were heading north. Tavera picked up her cards and didn’t care that she had a bad hand. The discomfort of her Red Earth time was stamped out by the prospect of new towns to explore and Derk getting away from Old Gam. Tavera smiled at her pa and laid down a card. The ring around Derk’s eye was starting to get more purple and he winced when he smiled back but he seemed in good spirits. There would be plenty of time to win at cards on the journey, Tavera told herself and she set down another card, too happy to care that she would probably lose.